People love sport-utility vehicles. No surprise, then, that there are SUV equivalents in the world of laptop computers.
As any manager knows, the real cost of a laptop is not just the price tag but also repairs or replacements. So some mobile computer users--the type who tramp around construction sites and Superfund dumps, say--try to avoid the add-on costs by buying laptops that will shrug it off when they're dropped or exposed to clouds of dust.
Panasonic Personal Computer Co. is among the competitors in this field. Recently, we tested two machines from its Toughbook line, the model 27 and model 71. Both have all-magnesium cases, liquid-resistant keyboards, shock-mounted hard drives and detachable carry handles, which guard against many common laptop mishaps. All in all, the 27 is a Humvee; the 71 is somewhat less armored but has better speed. Think of it as a Land Rover.
The 27 has a matte-black finish and slot covers for all connections. It has a faster processor than its predecessor model and a bigger hard drive. Its latches for the port covers ensure maximum protection from the elements.
The test unit came with a 266-megahertz Pentium MMX processor, 32 megabytes of memory, a 4-gigabyte hard drive, 12.1-inch liquid-crystal display and a single speaker. It can be upgraded to 160 megabytes of memory and has a wireless communication option.
The 27 showed its durability time and again during our testing. Not only did it survive a three-foot drop, it suffered no damage from being dropped on a corner of its case, which would fracture most plastic shells.
Panasonic likes to demonstrate the unit's ruggedness by running over it with a Humvee. As we had no Humvee in our arsenal, we had to make do with a Plymouth Neon. We did the deed, immediately turned on the unit and were rewarded by the familiar Windows 95 splash screen. There were just a few scratches on the case.
The LCD screen, the most expensive component, snuggles in a magnesium casing behind an impact-cushioning water- and dust-resistant plastic screen. The keyboard and touchpad are also water-resistant and dust-proof.
My only complaint about the 27 concerns performance. With only 2 megabytes of memory in the graphics controller, the machine, unsurprisingly, fared poorly on our GCNdex32 benchmark video tests. What surprised me was the below-average performance on the processor tests.
Compared with other laptops equipped with 266-megahertz Pentium MMX processors, the 27 ran noticeably slower. Disk-access scores, however, were well above average, making up in many applications for the slow processor. The overall GCNdex score of 4.97 was about a tenth of a point lower than the Dell Latitude LT's 5.09.
The 27 weighs a healthy 8.2 pounds with battery and CD-ROM drive, less than some standard laptops and also less than many other "ruggedized" models. Overall, Panasonic has done an excellent job of balancing durability and weight.
The 71 lets you trade up in performance and style by giving up some of the ruggedness. Its magnesium case is silver and black, without latched slot covers or rubber gaskets. But because it tries to meld performance with ruggedness, it does not excel in either area.
The unit we tested, which had a 300-megahertz Pentium II processor, 64 megabytes of memory and a 6.4-gigabyte hard drive, compared well against standard laptops. The 13.3-inch XGA active-matrix display is bright and easy to read but not dust-proof. (Panasonic has since upgraded several of the components in the model 71; it offers a model with a 366-megahertz Pentium II processor, for instance.)
Performance was about average compared with other 300-megahertz Pentium II laptops we've tested. Because of its 2-megabyte video memory and uninspiring video controller, the 71 did not perform well on video tests and would not be the right choice for applications such as videoconferencing. On the other hand, the processor turned in good results, and the Ultra ATA hard drive scored well above average. The CD-ROM scores were a little on the low side, however.
The 71 can be upgraded to a healthy 192 megabytes of memory and has an optional port replicator. In view of its magnesium case and other rugged features, the weight of 7.1 pounds is quite acceptable. The stereo speakers sound good, too.
Both units passed the lab's year 2000 readiness tests.
Panasonic is obviously onto something in bringing rugged features to the mainstream market. Considering the high price of repairs when a laptop goes bump, other makers should do the same.
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Toughbook 27 and 71 Laptop Computers
Panasonic Personal Computer Co.
Web address: www.panasonic.com/computer/notebook
Price: $4,999 manufacturer's suggested retail price
+ Excellent durability at a good price
+ Wireless communication option
-- Poor video performance
Overall grade: A-
Price: $2,999 manufacturer's suggested retail price
+ Superior mix of performance and ruggedness
+ Good design and optional LS-120 drive
-- Poor video performance
Overall grade: A-